BMCR 2022.02.43

Comparing the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires: integration, communication, and resistance

, , Comparing the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires: integration, communication, and resistance. Cambridge, United Kingdom; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. 400. ISBN 9781108479257 £90.00.


After decades of renewed interest in both Seleucid and Ptolemaic history, the logical next step is to develop a framework for informing discussion of similarities and differences between the two empires. This is perhaps more likely to emerge out of practical comparative research than abstract theoretical discussion, and thus the editors keep the latter to a minimum, only briefly situating their approach within the comparative study of empires (p. 2-4). The contributors make the case for comparison in three sections and ten chapters, most of which are co-authored.

The first section, consisting of four chapters, has a well-defined topic: “Cities, Settlement and Integration”. Von Reden and Strootman discuss foundation legends of the capital cities. The obvious challenges (no early sources, no fixed capital on the Seleucid side) make any comparison difficult, but the two authors meet in their assumption that both Alexandria and the Syrian tetrapolis were embedded in global exchange networks that are explicitly reflected in their foundation legends. This interesting theory relies in part on a flexible understanding of “global” and “universal” (in the Seleucid case, the “universal” aspect of foundation legends involving Perseus or Heracles seems to be purely Greek). Mairs and Fischer-Bovet tell contrasting stories of city-foundations: at least in the Far East, the Seleucids did not found many cities that survived for long, whereas the Ptolemies founded more cities than is sometimes believed. Some parallels come into view (notably the military component), but the evidence for Egypt is much better than for the Far East, so that the two discussions are quite different in nature. Clancier and Gorre offer an excellent discussion of the relationship between local elites, societal integration and “poliadization”. Unlike the Seleucids in Babylonia, the Ptolemies had complete control over the temples of Egypt, and unlike the closed Babylonian temple elite, the Egyptian priesthoods were relatively open to Graeco-Macedonian immigrants. According to the authors, these two factors explain why new civic structures (with their concomitant re-definition of local elites) were introduced in Seleucid Babylonia but not in Ptolemaic Egypt: in Babylonia this was in the interest of both the kings and the non-Babylonian local elites, whereas in Egypt both the kings and the elites already had what could have been achieved through constitutional change. This is a new and provocative idea (one wonders how it might apply to “poliadization” beyond Babylonia). Next Sänger discusses ethnic politeumata as a Ptolemaic peculiarity. That they served to attract foreign recruits in a time of crisis is certainly not a new observation, but Sänger interestingly sees politeumata as the “foreign” counterpart to the cleruchic system and as an alternative to (Seleucid) city foundations. The intricate connection to Ptolemaic military and settlement policy would indeed explain why politeumata seem to appear only in Egypt.

Taken together, the four contributions offer an important comparative analysis of the role of cities (and their alternatives) in the two empires. One could have wished for more interaction between the chapters and a more systematic approach to basic questions of categorization and definition: what is a city, and whose perceptions matter for the argument? The frequent use of the Greek word polis shows what is at stake. For Egypt, a distinction is made between the “political polis” and other settlements like Philadelphia, which “was, in fact, sometimes simply called polis”, but lacked “institutions specific to Greek city states” (p. 71). In a similar vein, Sänger notes that polis was not used in Egypt in its “original legal meaning”, because “it did not need to indicate that the so-called town had a Greek constitution” (p. 123). These are the only two passages where the underlying assumption that dominates the entire section – that polis is, or should be, a technical term for the “Greek city state” and its institutions – is explicitly spelled out (but cf. p. 95: “Babylon was ref<o>unded as a polis, a Greek city”). This assumption is never explored further, and thus it remains unclear whether anyone in the Hellenistic period thought along these lines, or whether the authors use polis in the modern sense, i.e. as an attempt to capture the essence of “the Greek state” in a way that no Greek ever did.[1] Of course the imperially sanctioned transformation of some settlements into civic communities based on citizenship had a profound impact, and this change could be associated with Greekness (it certainly was in Babylon and Jerusalem). But the fusion of a modern concept (“the Greek state”) with a fairly common ancient word means that it is often frustratingly unclear whether the analysis is carried out on emic or etic terms – surely an important decision in any comparative endeavor.[2] As a result, a gap emerges: because “Greek institutions” are taken as self-evident components of the Greek polis, it is never discussed in detail what these institutions were and did in their respective contexts.

The second section, “Communication and Exchange”, is conceived more broadly, with three chapters discussing concepts of time (Kosmin and Moyer), portrait concepts (Von den Hoff) and coinage (Iossif and Lorber). Kosmin summarizes his much-discussed reconstruction of the Seleucid Era and its implications,[3] notably the interrelated notions of a timeline defined by dynastic concerns and historical closure. Moyer shows that the notion of a self-contained dynastic timeline that separates Ptolemaic rule from what came before can also be found in Egypt, but it was embedded in traditional contexts and depended on local agency in ways that the Seleucid temporal regime did not. Von den Hoff discusses royal portraits on coins and, where possible, in other media, offering a helpful overview that leads to the usual insights (Ptolemaic dynastic standardization vs. Seleucid individual portraits in the third century; imitatio Alexandri in the Seleucid throne war but not before). The chapter on coinage starts with a good discussion (by Iossif and Lorber) of what is known about coin production in the Seleucid empire and how this compares to the Ptolemies; the long second part of this chapter, a summary of Lorber’s reconstruction of Ptolemaic monetary policy and minting patterns,[4] feels slightly out of place (one might have changed the order here because part one often presupposes knowledge of part two).

The section as a whole shows that the two empires became rather more similar to each other in the second century BCE, largely through Seleucid adoption of Ptolemaic practices (e.g. the double portrait including the wife or mother, or the dating and restriking of coins). All three chapters also raise interesting questions about the nature of power in the two empires, which are sometimes tackled explicitly. Conventional dichotomies are reinforced when we learn that the Seleucids had “a less centralized concept of kingship” (p. 189) because their portraits were not centrally disseminated as can be postulated for the Ptolemies; the minting of coins, too, “reflects the general administrative models adopted by the two dynasties” (p. 197), with several levels of local control evidenced by mint marks demonstrating the “more decentralized state” of the Seleucids. And yet it was the Seleucids whose centrally organized temporal regime was capable of penetrating “private spaces and personal thoughts” (p. 131), whereas Ptolemaic reconfigurations of time were “less radical” and “more heterogeneous” (p. 160). Perhaps there is a debate to be had about “centralized concepts of kingship” vs. a concept of institutional authority that connects local actors to the imperial center via delegation and representation: the Seleucid solutions were inevitably more complex given the size of their territory, but they did not lack a symbolic center.

The third section, on “Collaboration, Crisis, and Resistance”, shifts the perspective from the rulers to the ruled, with a particular focus on local elites. Pfeiffer and Klinkott announce a discussion of “Local Elites and Priests” in Egypt and Babylonia, but since all of the local elites who are considered turn out to be priests, the focus is more conventional than the title would suggest. Pfeiffer covers familiar ground in his discussion of the synodal decrees, which go out of their way to justify Ptolemaic kingship; he sees the high priests of Memphis as the driving force behind this. Klinkott is more original in that he uses the Egyptian synodal decrees as a model for what happened in Seleucid Babylonia. The findings of Clancier and Gorre (above, chapter 3) should caution against this approach, but it is certainly true that “negotiations” between kings and priests could take place in Babylonia as well. Dreyer and Gerardin offer a long discussion of the role of Greek local elites between c. 220 and 190 BCE that left this reviewer a bit confused. Gerardin starts by identifying the time of Ptolemy IV as a period when local elites had more power than ever before (p. 271), but this conclusion is reached largely by reclassifying the “free-floating, supra-civic elites” (p. 284) who defected to Antiochus III as “local elites”. Dreyer then gives an account of Antiochus’ war with Rome, noting that the Roman offer of freedom was more enticing than the Seleucid one: local elites (in the traditional sense) are implied here, but the parts do not in the end come together very well. The outlook at the end of this chapter, according to which “the era of deal-making politics” ended in the second century BCE with the decline of Greek elites (p. 300), is difficult to reconcile with the fact that Seleucid rule in this later period relied almost exclusively on “deals” with local and regional elites. This is very interestingly explored in the last chapter by Honigman and Veïsse, which compares the Egyptian revolt in the Thebaid and the Maccabean revolt in Judea. While the circumstances are different, we can observe similarities of discourse in the description of “impure” opponents, and the authors also reach an interesting conclusion about the impossibility of indirect rule in Egypt, which required the complete suppression of the Egyptian revolt whereas the Maccabean one could be integrated into Seleucid concepts of authority.

The production quality is not high for £90.[5] Some typos are noticeable but not normally relevant.[6] The book offers numerous vantage points for further study, and it also contains some important lessons on co-authorship in comparative projects. The most readable and, in terms of content, the most rewarding co-authored chapters in this book are those that do not consist of self-contained blocks, but frequently switch between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids and thus develop the comparison step by step (namely, the chapters by Clancier and Gorre and by Honigman and Veïsse; and also the first part of the chapter by Iossif and Lorber). But there is much to learn from most other chapters as well. The section topics are well chosen, and the editors may have been wise not to impose a tighter thematic or methodological framework at this stage. The book is an important first step in a direction that remains to be explored further; no student of the Hellenistic world can afford to ignore it.

Table of Contents

Contributors, pp. vii-xii
Preface, pp. xiii-xiii
Note on Abbreviations, pp. xiv-xiv
Introduction, Christelle Fischer-Bovet, Sitta von Reden, pp. 1-14
Part I – Cities, Settlement and Integration
Chapter 1 – Imperial metropoleis and Foundation Myths, Sitta von Reden, Rolf Strootman, pp. 17-47
Chapter 2 – Reassessing Hellenistic Settlement Policies, Rachel Mairs, Christelle Fischer-Bovet, pp. 48-85
Chapter 3 – The Integration of Indigenous Elites and the Development of poleis in the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires, Philippe Clancier, Gilles Gorre, pp. 86-105
Chapter 4 – Contextualizing a Ptolemaic Solution, By Patrick Sänger, pp. 106-126
Part II – Communication and Exchange
Chapter 5 – Imperial and Indigenous Temporalities in the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Dynasties, Paul Kosmin, Ian Moyer, pp. 129-163
Chapter 6 – The Visual Representation of Ptolemaic and Seleucid Kings, Ralf von den Hoff, pp. 164-190
Chapter 7 – Monetary Policies, Coin Production, and Currency Supply in the Seleucid and Ptolemaic Empires, Panagiotis P. Iossif, Catharine C. Lorber, pp. 191-230
Part III – Collaboration, Crisis, and Resistance
Chapter 8 – Legitimizing the Foreign King in the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires, Stefan Pfeiffer, Hilmar Klinkott, pp. 233-261
Chapter 9 – Antiochus III, Ptolemy IV, and Local Elites, Boris Dreyer, François Gerardin, pp. 262-300
Chapter 10 – Regional Revolts in the Seleucid and Ptolemaic Empires, Sylvie Honigman, Anne-Emmanuelle Veïsse, pp. 301-328
Bibliography, pp. 329-385
Index, pp. 386-390


[1] See, still, W. Gawantka, Die sogenannte Polis, Stuttgart 1985.

[2] To give just one example: while both Müller (Settlements of the Ptolemies, Louvain 2006) and Strabo list harbour settlements in the Red Sea Basin as poleis, we learn that these “were not Greek political poleis from a juridical point of view and might rather be coined Greco-Egyptian poleis/cities” (p. 73-74). But whose “juridical point of view” is this? If poleis and cities are synonyms, why use an untranslated Greek term at all? Neither Müller nor Strabo claim that these cities were “Greek”, and neither comments on them being “political”. What is the actual result of these investigations, apart from a reinforcement of the notion (going back at least to Droysen) that a city needs to be Greek to be “political”?

[3] P. Kosmin, Time and its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire, Cambridge (Mass.) 2018.

[4] For the earlier period, see in more detail C. Lorber, Coins of the Ptolemaic Empire. Part 1, New York 2018.

[5] No dust jacket, and the text on the spine is not centered. The pages are so tightly bound that after one read-through, the book does not close properly anymore. The optics of the cover are perhaps a question of taste, but it is unclear why it features a coin of Agathocles of Bactria, who – like all the Graeco-Bactrian kings – is never mentioned in the book.

[6] Perhaps in a second printing, “the battle of Issus” in 301 BCE can be corrected (twice on p. 5).